autumn leavesWhat a ravishing autumn gift: this foggy world so dashingly illuminated by heaps of yellow leaves! Or so I enthused while cycling through Brussels’ derelict canal-zone, which is not habitually associated with lyrical outbursts.
I was on my way to the romantic Gaasbeek castle in the Flemish countryside, for a melancholy exhibition on the theme of Sehnsucht. But to get there I first had to negotiate my passage through the rougher outskirts of Brussels – under sooty railway bridges, across a misty canal, along semi-industrial terrains and all the length of the grimy Chaussée de Mons. These are supposedly mean streets pockmarked by poverty, unemployment (1) and rising religious assertiveness (2).
But on this particular Sunday all was peace & quiet : the gloomy housing blocks, the canal, the ships – they were all enveloped in the stillness of the fog. A soothing luminous stillness, not sombre at all - illuminated as it was by yellow leaves everywhere, yellow leaves rustling on the trees, yellow leaves spiralling in the air, yellow leaves in soft, thick layers on the ground.
the urban jungle on SundayNear a metro-station of ill-repute I had to wait at a traffic light – while cautiously looking around, my alert gaze was captured by ... the innocent Sunday-morning spectacle of a baker’s shop window full of cakes & pies (lavishly dotted with red cherries & swimming in whipped cream). Ever so watchful, I had also warily been registering a young black man in training suit and with a small backpack who had been vigorously jogging in my trail for the last 10 minutes or so. Riding on, I spotted even more brawny young men! in little groups! in training suits! with hoods!
But then I saw the two signposts with: “R.S.C. Anderlecht” ; “Constant Vandenstock Stadium”. Obviously, all were heading with great hopes & ambitions to their Sunday morning football-training.
Hopes & ambitions.... somehow, for all their poverty and social problems, these Brussels boroughs do not exude the resigned hopelessness that has come to reign in some of those ailing towns mercilessly abandoned by Industry. (3) Here one does still sense brimming resourcefulness and reservoirs of youthful energy – because around here there are indeed so many young? And so many new arrivals? (4) But then again, pent-up energy can easily become explosive if it lacks suitable outlets. And they can’t all become football-stars. (5)
getting there!But anyway, on I courageously cycled, as next I had to traverse the most dreaded and damned of urban circles: commercial suburbia with its eternally congested highways and its sprawl of ugly shopping centres (6). A flâneur’s nightmare! (But thankful thoughts do go to the benevolent public space planners who, even in this car-infested purgatory, provided for cycling paths.)
And then I did at last reach the calm of the Flemish countryside. No immense arcadian vistas welcomed me, but rather residential villa areas (7) alternating with the remains of nature. Nevertheless, a roving eye directed by imagination will soon merely see foggy fields and woods, with their autumnal stillness punctured only by big black birds surging up in the mists.
An endearing conspiracy of the imagination was at work too at the domain of the Gaasbeek-castle. Only love, judiciously blended with gentle irony, can thus preserve and revive the ambiguous historical longings of a 19th century marquise widow (Marie Peyrat, alias Marquise Arconati Visconti ). In the surrounding park one revels in the classically romantic alleys lined by age-old trees and one cannot but fondly smile when glimpsing a phantom marquise galloping by on horseback (8). In the castle itself, awe and fascination dominate while one wanders through the labyrinthic neo-renaissance interior that our Marquise conceived of : at times grandly severe and sombre, at times testifying of an utterly bourgeois horror vacui, stuffed with heavy antiques and art objects.
But our dear Marquise’s spirit is perhaps best revived by the contemporary art exhibitions organized here (9) as they echo and comment the startling personality of this ambiguous woman .
A woman who would deliberately chose the Autumn season to live in this northern castle (while also owning Italian palaces). Often dressed as an androgynous renaissance page, an insatiable collector, dilettante, copious letter writer... A republican upstart spending an inherited aristocratic fortune to realise historical fancies...
Not quite a revolutionary or responsible life – but so melancholy an enterprise, so pure an example of turn-of-the-century sehnsucht ... and then so sturdily embodied in this castle!
Yes, melancholy flâneurs can only be grateful to the imaginative keepers of this castle and its phantoms.
Statistical and sociological notes
(1) The Brussels Institute for Statistics furnishes a fascinating wealth of facts and figures
(2) A recent rather funny example – some panels with explicit publicity for D-cup black bra's were covered up with chaste white paper. (I must admit I’d been shaking my head at that add too, but then I do shake my head at most publicity, insofar as I notice it at all)
(3) A poignant remark from a worker at the condemned Ford motor company in Genk (Limbourg): “10.000 people soon out of work... this place is going to become as desolate as Charleroi or la Louvière, soon we’ll all be slouching about in sloppy training suits”
(4) In Anderlecht, for instance, 28% of people do not have the Belgian nationality (to be added to those with Belgian nationality but recent, foreign roots). The average age is 37, to be compared with 42 in Flanders.
(5) In these boroughs about 25 % of the young leave high school without a proper degree, deficient in both linguistic and technical skills. And in an economic context where appropriately paid unskilled jobs are rare... this means rocketing youth-unemployment figures
(6) And yes, I count Ikea amongst the dismal joyless shopping centers, although I must confess my own books are almost all housed on Ikea shelves. But ah, these neon-lit, rectangular structures, conceived only to expose the shopping hordes to as many wares as possible in the shortest timeframe ... Is it an un-escapable law of economics that every gain in efficiency must entail a loss in grace?
(7) Sight-seeing cyclists with a sociological bent might speculate about the contemporary correlation between heaps of money and outrageous tasteless eclecticism, as exemplified by this huge, rambling Spanish hacienda-like villa structure crammed full with neo-classical ornaments. (But these sight-seeing cyclists should not let slip their traffic attention while gaping at monstrous villas! They should continuously be prepared for the sudden appearances of packs of cyclist-amateurs in tight suits, ruthlessly wheezing by.)
(8) smartly positioned mirrors with a marquise silhouette cut out in black
(9) my favourite remains the 2008 exhibition which I visited on a dark and snowy November day (quite suited to dark mysterious castles). But as to theme and title (“Sehnsucht”!) this year’s exhibition is of course a winner